MISTRALKITCHEN, THE 2.0 VERSION of William Belickis’s erstwhile Belltown jewel box restaurant Mistral, is one overwhelming enterprise.
Five thousand square feet. Six discrete dining rooms. Two kitchens. Even the extra-wide, extra-thick steel door off Westlake Avenue, located just where downtown gives way to the burgeoning hot zone of South Lake Union, is about the heaviest thing you’ve ever opened before taking sustenance.
So it was unexpected when this overwhelming exterior gave way to an entry, lined with humble bushels of produce, that delivered us straight to Belickis. The boyish toque greeted our anonymous party at the host station with such warm serenity you’d never know that he runs MistralKitchen’s operations, not to say its ovens and stoves, with nary a day off all week. “Actually I haven’t had a day off since November,” he grinned, adding weakly, “Did you know this place is four times the size of Mistral?”
The steely, techno-sleek main room thrummed with stylish professionals in various states of rowdiness (more later on that unlikely state of affairs) and the bar counter was scattered with diners watching the chefs at work in the long open kitchen. Up a few stairs to the right a couple of intimate alcoves—including one with a fireplace—enclosed lively groups enjoying cocktails and noshes. Behind the kitchen to the left, an entirely separate dining room, the cashmere-elegant and aptly named Jewel Box, contained connoisseurs enjoying the kind of multicourse feasts Belickis made his name on at Mistral. No one had booked the $200-a-head Chef’s Table for the evening, but if they had, Belickis would be playing affable host and able chef for that crowd, too.
Full plate. But at the moment Belickis was consumed with chervil. “Aren’t things in the garden weird this year?” he marveled. “My chervil didn’t do a thing all summer, then it just roared in February!”
This horticultural obsession will surprise no one who’s followed Belickis from Mistral. The Belltown temple of Euro cuisine enjoyed acclaim that was at once rapturous and unnaturally quiet, as if devotees wanted to keep their shrine to themselves. Those cultists knew that Belickis was always more interested in growing his own vegetables and herbs on-premise and distilling them into potent gastriques and stocks and foams than he was in playing famous restaurateur. Mistral was exclusive and rarefied; its pleasures culinarily arcane. When he announced plans to open this huge restaurant with multiple eating zones designed by pooh-bah architect Tom Kundig…well, the whole idea sounded a little three-ring-circus for the likes of a guy who was first and foremost—and I say this with all admiration—a food nerd.
Hence the second shocker of the evening: Belickis can do casual.
The main room is all pewter and black and stainless: concrete floor to open ductwork ceiling, with raw-filament bulbs and tall windows and that busy open kitchen in between. And, on our weeknight visit, it was vital as a heartbeat. Urban sophisticates slammed the place, loudly. They may be drawn by the inventive cocktails and an admirably wide-ranging wine list. But I suspect a bigger reason is that Kundig’s forthright design and Belickis’s down-to-earth, affordable menu together deliver a single clear message: You have left the temple.
Make no mistake: The food still bears the imprint of Belickis’s trademark obsession with pure, vegetal essences. A shallow bowl of Manila clams in a briny, buttery sauce was pocked with chorizo and brightened with a sunny orange gremolata. A single sashimi-grade sea scallop, almost creamy, arrived strewn with artichoke hearts and cipollini onions in a chlorophyll-bright herb sauce. Musky beets deepened a fine preparation of daurade whitefish; rarely seen black radishes contributed a fine offsetting bitterness to blush slices of lamb leg with sweet baby carrots.
Such concentration on the purest essence of one’s produce might seem precious in the hands of a lesser chef, but in Belickis’s house it’s always grounded in substance. This I realized in the Jewel Box, which enshrines the Mistral concept (eight courses for $90; four courses for $60; wine extra), only with plusher surroundings in a softly classy palette of oyster and gunmetal. In this hushed white-linen room, the antics on the other side of the wall seem of another restaurant entirely.
Here you’re back in the temple, where there’s no written menu and your fawning pro of a waiter will simply ascertain any dislikes or allergies so that the chef can tailor your meal. That waiter may go on about a wine’s brambly fruit or solemnly inquire which citrus you’d like for your Pellegrino—but for my money he was leagues more effective than the callow hotties in the loud room. Candidly, my heart sank a little to see that course two, a very generous mound of raw tuna, was crowned with a chapeau of cucumber foam—the sort of pretentious faux-food that gives restaurants like this such foofy reputations.
But the foam turned out to be essential, its ephemeral froth the right foil for the dense fish and its accompaniments of carrot, microcilantro, and orach. (Orach? Belickis darted over, naturellement, to give a biological dissertation on the grassy red leaf.) This whole plate was substantial, even mighty, because the flavors were so intense. The same can be said for every one of the subsequent courses, which unfolded according to the template established at the original Mistral—yep, there’s the scallop, the fathomless vegetable puree, the foie gras, the cheese plate, the bang-up dessert, the gratis cookies. Even portions offered substance—biggest lobe of foie gras I’ve ever confronted—providing genuine value for the whopper price tag.
There were imperfections. That foie gras, winningly spangled with crushed pistachios and sweet little cubes of Lillet gelée—teensy Lillet shooters!—was too oily. The delicate brininess of a Kusshi oyster could not hold its own against a clangor of blood orange chili gratiné. At lunchtime, when the main room goes even more drop-in casual (and tabs dip to a happy $15ish), a margherita pizza from the white-mosaic wood-fired oven lacked the requisite crispiness of crust, while a goat cheese agnolotti pasta featured mushy artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers. Flavors on both were unassailable. Execution was off.
Could it be that the poor overburdened Belickis has bitten off too much? Perhaps. MistralKitchen churns out two meals a day, every day, besides which the guy is expecting his first child in July. He thinks he’s tired now.
But who’s kidding whom: Judged against the magnitude of its enterprise, MistralKitchen is a knockout. Belickis’s multicourse extravaganzas remain a heady thrill for food snobs—but here, amid the buzz and visual exhilaration of that stunning main room, his food has finally found a showcase for the rest of us.
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